The Public Trust Manifesto

January 6, 2009

As we move forward with a new and hopefully ocean-friendly administration, we should have a unifying foundation on which to present ocean issues. Especially inspired by the scholarship of Nicholas School Ph.D. student Mary Turnipseed, I believe that the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient legal concept with powerful, but underutilized roots in U.S. law, is an immediately accessible entry point into any ocean policy debate. Key to the Public Trust Doctrine is the idea that natural resources belong to all Americans, with the government acting as a custodian. The word “trust” allows it to be clearly tied to economic revitalization and contrasted to the extreme financial mismanagement we have experienced in recent years. It also fits perfectly with President-elect Obama’s calls to involve people more in their government. The Public Trust Doctrine can and should be applied to all federal waters. The following paragraph is a brief manifesto for public trust-based ocean conservation. I have been sharing this passage informally with colleagues and leaders — including with Ocean Champion and soon to be CIA Chief Leon Panetta:

Natural ocean and coastal resources should be considered a vital subfocus of the Obama Administration’s economic revival and long term growth plans. These resources represent a key portfolio of our Nation’s public trust, for which the Obama administration is now the trustee. The solemn duty of the trustee is to preserve the asset base of the portfolio while judiciously allowing uses of some assets and continually striving to grow the portfolio. Just as assets in our economy are inextricably linked, assets in our ocean portfolio are linked with one another and with our resources on land and our Nation’s human resources. Therefore, managing this portfolio means managing users of ocean spaces and resources in a holistic, cooperative manner. This will require a better understanding of the stocks and flows in and out of the portfolio, and the behaviors that are changing those stocks and flows. Moreover, as the recent mortgage meltdown and Ponzi schemes have made clear, assets in a trust portfolio are real and measurable—they cannot be substituted with promises of future gain predicated on entities conjured from thin air. Ocean habitats, clean water, energy potential, fishing jobs, recreation, intact ecosystems and natural beauty are real entities that belong to all Americans and held in trust by our government. The preservation of that trust is a unifying theme that should imbue all of our decisions about managing these resources.

A more thorough treatment will be published this spring in Ecology Law Quarterly. A draft manuscript is available upon request.


The Jellyfish that Lit the World

October 8, 2008
The edge of Aequorea victoria's umbrella contains a bioluminscent protein called aequorin.

Aequorea victoria

A scientific adventure that began with a haul of 10,000 bioluminescent jellyfish off Friday Harbor during 1961 has resulted in the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Osamu Shimomura‘s career shot forward in 1956 when he isolated a luminescent protein found in the mollusc Cypridina. This was a major feat for a young researcher, particularly since U.S. scientists had worked without success for some time on it. Princeton University snapped up Shimomura, who was awarded a PhD from Nagoya University without even being a doctoral candidate. He now works at Connecticut College.

Once in the U.S., Shimomura turned his attention to the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Over the course of 1961, he and a colleague gathered and sliced the edges off 10,000 jellyfish — the parts that glow — and mashed them into a condensed form. Back at the lab, the scientists discovered that the material glowed brightly, when activated by the calcium ions in seawater. They named this brightening protein aequorin.

Aequorin contains a chromophore that has become a pivotal investigatory tool for biochemical researchers around the world. This “beer-can-shaped” protein absorbs blue and ultraviolet light, then re-emits it at a green wavelength.

Today, scientists use this molecular flashlight to illuminate cancer tumors as they grow, track the progression of Alzheimer’s, and map the basic function of cells. With Green Fluorescent Protein, researchers can watch a single protein move about a cell.

Shimomura shares the prize, one-third each, with colleagues Marty Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Tsien of UC-San Diego.

(Image courtesy: The GFP Site)

Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) Reauthorization

June 24, 2008

By Sheril Kirshenbaum


From:  Sheril Kirshenbaum



Re:  Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) Reauthorization

Marine Mammal Protection Act Reauthorization


  • Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 which prohibits, with certain exceptions, the take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S.
  • NOAA has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Mammal Commission, Department of Defense, and others to develop a legislative proposal on behalf of the Administration to reauthorize the MMPA.
  • MMPA was amended in 1994 to provide exceptions to the take prohibitions, prepare stock assessments, and study fishery interactions.


NOAA and the Bush Administration

June 16, 2005, NOAA released Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) reauthorization bill.

Includes Amendments that would

  • Clarify the harassment definition
  • Strengthen marine mammal bycatch reduction initiatives
  • Enhance the enforcement capabilities of the Act.


July 17, 2006, the House passed H.R. 4075, to reauthorize MMPA containing some of the proposed amendments in the Administration’s MMPA reauthorization bill.  The bill would increase the amounts of allowable fines and penalties collected for violations under the Act and include provisions requiring recreational fisheries that cause incidental mortality or serious injury to marine mammals to be included in the take reduction plan process.

Bill does not include several proposed Administration amendments, including the proposed changes to the harassment definition and Alaska Native co-management agreement program.


December 6, 2006, the Senate passed polar bear treaty provisions that were included in the House-passed MMPA reauthorization bill, H.R. 4075.  MMPA reauthorization will commence this Congress.